When the going gets tough, parenting with empathy can be the hardest task we face. Especially if you were raised in a household where frustration, yelling, or any amount of physical or emotional violence was a way of life. These days, there is a lot of talk in the media about the importance of teaching children empathy. But before we can teach it, we need to be avid practicers ourselves. And how do you do that when you have a needy infant, or tantrum-filled toddler, or downright willful child opposing you. It’s so easy to fall back on those powerful impulses to simply shut the child down.
But research shows that how we respond to our children becomes how they respond to themselves. According to my psychologist friend (and father to a darling 18-month old girl), as parents, we ARE their Super Ego. “Their what?” I hear you asking. Ah yes, meet the Super Ego. Coined by Freud, it refers to the part of the psyche that “plays the critical and moralizing role”. For all intents and purposes, it’s our inner critic. So how we respond to our kids when we’re under stress becomes their inner voice. No pressure, right? 😉
Luckily the benefits of practicing empathy go way beyond the benefits to your child. Not only do they receive the calm, loving response we seek to offer them, but WE actually get a lot of personal healing through the experience too. Not sure how? Let me show you.
It happened to me after the “super ego” conversation. I’m in the kitchen making dinner and my son comes crashing in to ask me something. “No honey,” I responded calmly to whatever was the matter. Well, he didn’t like that answer and started to throw a tantrum. A MOTHER of all tantrums. He was tired, hungry, cranky. I rationalized this.
But then I looked at him and it hit me.
I AM HIM, I thought.
And this feeing went way beyond the rationalization from a moment before. It was beyond trying to explain him the situation, or to “sportscast” (although those can be effective tools too). For a moment, I BECAME the child standing in front of me. I let my mind float inside that little body. I was the one crying, whining, upset, misunderstood, not getting my way. I was looking up at my mother (self) trying to shush me, ignore me, distract me. I remembered other times when some adult had spoken to me that way – arm-waving, voice-raised, flustered, yelling, telling me to stop, be quiet, the whole gamut. I was in that little body, and for a moment, I felt vividly how frustrating and isolating it was.
I held onto that feeling. I looked up at my mother (self) again and tried to imagine what she could say to me right now that would make me feel ok. What tone of voice would she use? What would make me believe her?
I held on to those thoughts too and let my mind float back into my body. There I was standing before my child, who was still crying, desperately grasping for comfort. What words had I just heard inside my head? I looked at my child and said them to him. And realized it was exactly the same thing that I had always wanted to hear myself. He calmed down quickly and we were able to have a sweet moment before getting back to preparing dinner.
We were both healed by that experience. My child got exactly the response he wanted – loving comfort. And I did too, and then some. Maybe it was 30-odd years late, but saying those kind words, as if to myself, healed something in me. A hole that I might never have even realized existed.
This is just one empathic experience among many that I’ve had since then. And I can honestly say that my parenting experience has gotten exponentially more joyful. I no longer find myself reaching that breaking point with my child. It’s sounds a bit wacky, but the ability to transport myself into that little body is getting quicker and easier. When we hit those tough moments, I can quickly put myself in his shoes and imagine how it feels and what I need to hear to make it ok. It’s become a skill and a habit, like anything else.
Don’t get me wrong, parenting with empathy is not easy! But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Ironically, it almost seems self-serving. It’s only by allowing ourselves to personally identify with another’s pain that we become fully mobilized to change our own behaviour. Maybe that’s just the self-oriented nature of the human ego. Either way, the personal knowledge of how our behaviour affects others is a big motivator towards acting differently. And in the end, going through this exercise might open your eyes (and heart) to how you might like to treat your SELF differently too.
So I hope this will give you some food for thought on exploring your own capacity for empathy with your child and how it can help your parenting experience blossom. I know that embracing empathy on a deeper scale has changed my relationship with my child forever.
Other resources on the Super Ego concept: